top of page

Minimalism: The Mental Health Benefits of Owning Less

After watching the Netflix documentary entitled “Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things,” I feel affirmed and reassured in small (and maybe) a few significant ways that living (more) simply is not such a crazy idea after all. My partner and I have occasional debates about how much easier life would be without our respective ‘collections’ of clutter. When we met nine years ago, I was more minimal in my process than I find myself these days. Little by little, I have fallen into the stressful rhythm of telling myself, it will be fine because my ‘stuff’ is neatly hidden away in a closet in my office. The optimum phrase here is neatly hidden away.

Throughout their well-documented story, renowned minimalists Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus narrate their separate and now collaborative journeys into what has become a fruitful livelihood, allowing them to help 20 million other folks do the same since they began in 2009. As engaging as I found the one-hour video*, I am happy to report that Millburn and Nicodemus have a website, podcast, and several other books on the topic of minimalism. The two men have also been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Forbes Magazine, TIME, ABC, CBS, NBC, BBC, CBC, and National Public Radio. Wow and wow. All this from two regular guys who described their former work lives as “Caucasian middle managers who lived excessively and oozed apathy.”

As a counselor in training, I continue to find the more people I meet, the more unhappiness I see. And, I have to admit that I too find myself a little more stressed these days. Not when I was younger though. I was a simple kid growing up. Every summer, I longed to spend three precious months alone with my grandmother on her farm in the little town she lived in outside Vicksburg, Mississippi. Our days subsisted of taking long walks, working in the garden, and planning weekly card parties. Not once have I looked back wishing we had gone shopping more. The only time we would drive into town (she lived ten and a half miles outside the city limits) was to stock up on necessities at the local grocery store. For all the precious memories I have, I am heartbroken that my grown daughter will never have something similar.

So, back to the idea of minimizing one’s cache of household and personal clutter. How in the world is this tied to mental health? According to Millburn and Nicodemus, ‘physical clutter’ is equivalent to a kind of ‘visual’ noise. And sustained noise (of any kind) leads to various forms of tension, stress, and despair. Agree or disagree, stress is the how the brain and body communicate messages which are usually negative and non-productive. The World of Psychology blog states that chronic stress increases the risk of developing health problems including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and a weakened immune system. Studies provide resounding evidence that chronic stress also affects a person’s mental health. We know this. And, we feel this. All too often, this is the root of anxiety disorders and depression. It is of course, not the only cause; however, it is one of the critical components linked to those who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Recent researchers from the University of California, Berkeley have discovered new insights into why (and how) stress factors into the types of harm caused to the human psyche.

One has to ponder the possibility that having an excess of real-world, visual clutter may indeed be detrimental to one’s mental and physical health. It is, of course, a personal decision. As for myself, I have always been a believer in periodically thinning out my non-essential piles of stuff. It makes me feel better and accomplished, and then I regret that I let myself temporarily forget it is not the stuff that has the power to make me feel better. I especially like what Milburn and Nicodemus say about letting go. “And, the only way to silence the noise is to let go. An empty space isn’t empty, rather it’s a place filled with opportunity. When we make room for the silence, we’re able to clean up the emotional, mental, and spiritual clutter that drives us mad.”

-- Susan M. Greco, Walden University

* “Our identities are shaped by the costumes we wear.” – Joshua Fields Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus (from Everything That Remains: A Memoir by the Minimalists)

bottom of page